The way flood clean-up works is that you try to figure out where you can be useful, and you show up. Thursday we get the call for youth volunteers. For a change I don’t have anyone contagiously ill at my house and the roads are not blocked between me and the rally point, so three girls and I turn out. (The boy stays home stuck in school, price of doing your coursework online with people who aren’t centered in a disaster zone.)
Our fearless leader, Debbie, leads a caravan down to the sorting location where she was told they need us and our gathered donations. We all arrive, and the friendly but firm National Guardsman sizes up our crew and says what she’s probably been saying for an hour straight: “We’re not taking any more donations here.”
People use natural disasters as a way to declutter their homes, and Debbie has just spent days sorting through people’s cast-offs and doing them the favor of discarding their garbage for them.
“But these are the things you said needed.” She knows better than to bring anything other than the called-for items, and I wonder if we’re going to get a pass inside.
Debbie confers while the rest of us watch, living props for the TV news crew behind us reporting that this location isn’t accepting anymore of your old junk.
Conclusion of the conference: That need was two hours ago. It’s been filled.
“Well that’s how this works,” Debbie says, undaunted. Her normal role in church life is getting Catholics to sing — she is by definition the embodiment of optimistic perseverance. She chats with the coordinator, and then as she’s crossing the parking lot runs into someone she knows from another church. Between the two of them she comes away with fresh leads: There’s another sorting location that can use us, and also there are some flooded apartments being cleaned out. We’ll need masks and gloves for that job.
It’s getting on lunch time and these are teenagers, so we regroup. Our fearless leaders do their team-magic, and in the space of an hour we’ve got gloves, masks, pizza, and yet more leads. We consume the pizza, and then come up with a plan for the afternoon.
There’s an elderly couple who needs their home cleaned out, but they are waiting on insurance before we can work, so maybe we’ll be able to go over there tomorrow. There’s a donations center down near the epicenter where they’re ready for another shift of helpers. And then there’s those apartments.
I’m pretty sure it’s the prospect of trying to find parking in a city-center disaster area that makes me get over the last my reservations about dragging the younger girls to the who-knows-what awaiting us at the flooded-out apartment complex. I’d rather face the rotting, festering unknown than try to find parking.
So we end up in the caravan to this one-off disaster, a set of apartments that was flooded by an isolated pond-dam break. It’s three moms with our collection of teen girls and younger siblings, and then a car full of older teen boys driving themselves. Debbie gives us directions, and tells us there’ll be someone coordinating at the site, just report in and we’ll be put to work.
People like Debbie always say that.
We find the place, no problem, and I repent of every thought I ever had about parking being better here. I quick back into a spot near the entrance, because I’m pretty sure that if I venture any deeper into this teeming mass of U-Haul trucks and double-parked cars I’ll never, ever get out.
There is no sign, anywhere, of the fabled site-coordinator. The girls and I climb out to look around. We’re surrounded by perfectly competent residents managing their own business, trying to get moved, and not looking at all like they would like any help. The boys fall in behind us and we walk farther into the complex, in search of the land where people need us. I’m feeling intensely shy. Heaven help me if I’m just supposed to go up to strangers and inform them I’m there to save the day they didn’t need saved.
A quarter mile down the hill, just across a bridge I don’t trust, the one spanning the guilty creek that is now trickling along in muddy innocence declaring, “Flood? What flood?” there’s a food truck. There are folding tables, and milling residents, and there’s a busy woman with a clipboard coordinating important things, primarily related to hot dogs and french fries, as far as I can tell. On the one hand, she looks like she’s in charge. On the other hand, I’m not sure she’s in charge of anything other than lunch.
There’s a man standing next to her, fifty-something, and he doesn’t look like he swept in to save anyone’s day; he looks like he lives here and he has his head on straight. “We were told there were people who needed help cleaning out their apartments?” I ask him.
A pack of shiny-faced youth with matching I love my church t-shirts floats by in the distance. I suspect someone else has beat us to the helping business.
Normal South Carolinians, the non-clipboard-wielding kind, never answer anything too quickly. But after a moment he nods, and says, “I know who it is you’re looking for. The woman who is asking for help. She lives in 8F.” He points around the corner from where we’re standing. “Go all the way back to the end, to building F. 8F. Ask for Vera.”
Another quarter-mile, and we’re looking at building F, down at the very remotest end of the apartment complex. It’s quieter here, the only activity a U-haul truck parked in front of the center of the building. We scout until we find #8. It’s upstairs, across the hall from the guy moving his things into the U-haul.
There’s a vague stench, but it’s not any worse than my minivan with the bad seal on the door that we had to dry out the night before. No mud on the floor or anything. Someone’s started pulling up carpet on the entryway.
The door to #8 is open, but I don’t see anyone inside. “Hello? Vera?”
No answer. The kids wait outside. They’re not really into walking into strangers’ flood-stenched apartments.
I walk in a little deeper, and call a few more times, and finally find Vera in the back bedroom. She’s about my age, your basic self-reliant middle-aged mom-type, and she’s absorbed in getting the contents of the master bedroom packed up. For a moment I wonder if we’re about to be sent off to look for work elsewhere. No. She can use our help. A wispy girl of maybe thirteen or so is doing things in the background. We’re never introduced, but I assume she’s Vera’s daughter.
The other moms find us, and our crew converges on the site. Thank God it’s fellow moms, because getting strangers to clean out a flood-worn apartment is like trying to get a house guest to load your dishwasher correctly, only in this case they are charged with hauling a third of your possessions to the dumpster and boxing up the rest.
On Saturday, Vera was a regular mom. It was a rainy day; she probably worked, or ran errands, or maybe did something with her kids. She might have had an outfit picked out for church in the morning. She might have made a mental note to pack umbrellas. There’s popcorn on the floor in the front bedroom — one of the kids probably stayed up late watching a movie on the big TV, and set the bowl aside to clean up in the morning.
Sunday morning, instead of making breakfast and getting the kids to clean up their mess from last night, she woke to the hope that someone would show up with a boat to rescue her family, and her downstairs neighbors whose homes were rapidly getting submerged, out of this fresh hell no one, anywhere, ever, had considered a possibility.
Monday they returned home, and word is that thieves in boats came in the night to help themselves to the valuables in the upstairs apartments. So she comes home to a condemned building, wet floors, and the need to find a new home, fast.
She and the kids were efficient. In each room they’ve done a quick-sort, and tossed everything that can’t be salvaged against one wall, then done their best to make sense of the rest. She tells me there’s all this trash to take out, and she’s trying to get the clothes in the master bedroom ready to go. As it happens, the one and only thing I threw into the truck on the way out the door was our supply of trash bags.
I fetch the bags (and the truck, and prayerfully make my way over that terrifying bridge and find parking on a muddy patch by another building), and we use the lightweight ones for makeshift garment bags, and set up a relay for filling the contractor bags with trash.
It’s good work for kids. There’s a lot of standing around waiting for something to do, and kids are good at standing around doing nothing as part of their normal pace of housework.
The girls have a habit of stuffing the contractor-bags until they are too heavy. The boys have a habit of being able to haul really heavy things down the stairs and over to the dumpster. There’s no power; when we’ve got the big trash hauled and the good stuff boxed and staged in the living room, we scoop up the random bits of tiny-trash with our hands. Almost as good as a vacumn, if you have enough children and a small apartment.
Across the hall, a sketchy-looking man in his twenties, tall and muscular and with a demeanor that suggests he’s not used to being helped by church people, is trying to get his furniture into the U-haul. I don’t get the idea he and Vera are buddies. I send three teenage boys to help him, and leave them to the nearly-silent communication system men use when they are working together to get something enormous down a tight, rickety staircase.
We finish up the last bits of work in Vera’s master bedroom. She has family, she explains, who will be able to help her move later in the afternoon, but who weren’t able to come sooner — she’s not the only one drowning in the work of sorting out the post-flood life. And there’s still work. You have to keep going to work, to pay for all this mess. She has a lease on a new apartment down the road, and just needs to get hold of a moving truck.
“God is good,” she says. And, “You guys were awesome.” She starts crying. One of the moms gives her a big hug.
Yes, we were awesome. We descended on her place, and in the space of ninety minutes we hauled out dozens of bags of trash and got her good stuff boxed and labeled and ready to load. This is probably the most awesome thing any of us helpers has ever done.
“This has been so awful,” she says, “And everyone’s shown up and helped each other. We’re really a community for once. It should be like this all the time.”
Artwork: William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Two Sisters, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons